I was getting ready to give a guest lecture at a prominent mid-Western University. Sitting outside the room, a pendulum dangled over my lap. I was asking questions. A faculty member came by and made a comment about how he wouldn’t stake his life savings on information from a pendulum. It was a bit condescending, but I get that. At an institution of higher education, many choose intellect over intuition, even in a creative field like music. It was a first encounter with what I call: “bracketing out:” both conscious (because of preferences, biases or prejudices), and unconscious (see “inattentional blindness“) discarding of information. Often times bracketing happens because of how “worthy” we perceive a source to be. In our culture, rationality and intellect seem to be the most trusted sources of information: perhaps a byproduct of suppressing the feminine principle for so many centuries. To the faculty member in Illinois, my source of information: a well asked question, followed by observing the motion of the pendulum (guided by micro movements in my hand), was mystical hocus pocus. It was not real or trustworthy.
Tör Nørretranders in The User Illusion, however, presents a compendium of research behind how misleading the results of our intellectualizing can be. He introduced the notion of exformation: all the stuff beneath actual communicated information. It turns out that our thinking brain can only process a wee fraction of the data coming in through our senses. In each verbal or written communication, there is a body of shared data and experience, not actually communicated directly. Cultural codes, assumptions, research behind conclusions, etc. all go unspoken, because they are perceived to be mutually understood. When information comes from a scientific study such as the 80’s, when doctors told us cholesterol from eggs was bad for us, we tend to favor it, as opposed to information that comes with, say, my being stung 5 times by two bumble bees yesterday as I accidentally disturbed their nest. Animal totems are a compendium of wisdom compiled over centuries by [First Nations] People observing, and divining significance from times when animals show up in our lives (compiled in books such as Ted Andrews‘ Animal Speak, to name one source). The information on cholesterol is deemed more valid because it came from a very specific and “approved” (marketable?) methodology (however biased…), while information derived from bee stings or a pendulum, is deemed superstitious because it comes from intuiting conclusions based solely on observation and contemplation.
And yet, in my own experience, everything I encounter is information with potential significance asking to be integrated. I do not necessarily believe everything, but I believe in the possibility of everything. And lots of information requires belief. Even scientific studies. I have never seen a germ, and yet I believe in them, and because I believe in them, correlate them to sickness. In reality I have never even experienced a germ, only the symptoms that doctors tell me come from germs (there’s that pesky exformation again!). All of the information of studies on germs has been discarded, and I am left with only the conclusions: to believe or disbelieve (or “buy in” or not). I must trust the doctors, and yet one decade eggs are bad for me, and the next…oops…they were wrong, and eggs are ok again. Of course, I never gave up eggs…because I love eggs, and my higher wisdom told me the studies were wrong, or perhaps were not about the health of eggs, but the sale of drugs to counteract cholesterol. There’s that hocus pocus again…and yet it served me far better than the science did. So I tend to favor ideas based on experience and am careful with beliefs. There is a great dialog in Dogma between Rufus and Bethany:
Bethany: “You’re saying having beliefs is a bad thing?”
Rufus: “I just think it’s better to have ideas. I mean, you can change an idea, changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it.”
I’m not advocating that we give up science. But choosing to bracket out only that which has been verified by science or rational thought is like trying to walk without legs. Information is everywhere, and we get to choose how to interpret it. We are the writers of our own studies. If we ignore our own experience in the face of someone else’s (no matter how rigorous their methodologies and conclusions), then we deprive ourselves of our most trustworthy source: intuition. Intuition stems from the full-bandwidth of information coming in our senses, which our body, mind and spirit (subconscious!) IS fully processing. Our own experience, and subsequent intuition, is the one source that contains all of the exformation with nothing discarded! Malcolm Gladwell explored this notion in Blink.
“The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our reality. The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of that small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal. Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. “ (Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
So cast your radar widely, and absorb everything with an open mind, body and spirit and play with all information, no matter where it comes from. If nothing else, it is a practice in creativity and imagination. And imagination has changed the course of individuals and humanity more than once!
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